Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olga Rules the World...

I remember it fairly well. The Summer Olympics. Munich. 1972. Forty years ago this year.

Television is remembering it too. I haven't been watching much in the way of Olympic Coverage here in the USofA. I hate and have hated NBC Olympic coverage for some time and haven't figured out how to steam the BBC coverage like some of my countrymen and women. Some of this is because I recall with great fondness ABC Olympic coverage of years past including that of the Munich Olympics in 1972. To be honest I don't know how accurate my memories of ABC coverage is as inevitably these things get lost in a haze of often nostalgised memory but I continue to believe that the coverage was excellent. Back to Olga: I happened to watch a bit of NBC's Olympics coverage today and saw an NBC report on Olga Korbut, the great Soviet gymnast who electrified the audience at the arena in Munich and the audience that was watching on television around the globe (see excerpts from ABC's coverage of Korbut at the 1972 Munich Games in the second video below). NBC's segment on Korbut whetted my appetite for more so I went to Youtube to watch more Olga Korbut shorts. What I found there was a BBC 2 report on Korbut put up on Youtube in July of this year by the Beeb, a report which seemed to me, at times, eerily similar to the NBC look back at the forty year ago past I just watched today (see the first below). Can you say plagiarism?

Korbut is an interesting and historically significant sport figure. It is quite clear that Olga Korbut changed Olympic gymnastics competitions and gymnastics forever. She brought an athleticism to gymnastics that really hadn't existed before. In this she reminds me of the culture war in ice skating that has being taking place over the last several decades between the more artistic oriented skaters and the more athletically oriented ones like France's Surya Bonaly, a cold culture war that is still going on, to some extent today, as the International Skating Union (ISU) change and change again points earned for a quad in mens competition. And, as Korbut was certainly penalised by conservative judges for her innovations in the sport, nothing is more immune to change than the Olympics and FIFA it seems, innovations, of course, she developed with her coach Renald Knysh, so were those ice skaters who brought greater athleticism to their sport. Korbut may have lost points because of the conservatism of Olympics judges, but she won the hearts of those who watched her perform in Munchen and those, like me, who watched on TV and spoke about her for days afterwards and she won the hearts and minds of so many young women who became gymnasts because of her.

The other thing that Korbut did, or so the talking heads in the NBC and BBC profiles and remembrances of Olympics past and other intellectuals and academics tell us Korbut did, was to change the attitudes of many including, one commentator asserts, American President Richard M. Nixon, toward Soviet athletes and Soviets in general. Before Olga, BP, so the story goes, Soviet athletes were regarded by many in the "free word", remember this was the era of the Cold War, as robots, as stereotypes and caricatures without feelings. Olga's smiles and Olga's tears (her teammate Tamara Lazakovitch was near tears after losing the floor exercise to Korbut but many forget this as she wasn't the cute water sprite or pixie Korbut was) after disaster on the uneven bars, changed how many in the West viewed Soviet athletes. Olga, in other words, humanised Soviets for many in the West. Olga and her fellow Soviet gymnasts toured Western Europe and the US to large crowds including at Madison Square Garden in New York City in the wake of the 1972 Summer Olympics acting as a kind of good will ambassador between the USSR and the US and the "little" Korbut charmed the "big" Nixon, who made his name as an anti-Communist, when she visited the White House. Korbut remembers Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to the US, telling her that her visit with Nixon had done more for Soviet and American diplomacy than he had been able to do in five years. That anyone, by the way, could (and of course many continue to) see people in this way tells us, of course, something very interesting and illuminating about theodicies of nationalism and how these ethnocentric nationalist theodicies demonise the other.

And now for something somewhat different. I wonder if we can expect any of these let's look back in nostalgic joy and wonder at the Munich Olympics on another memorable, though not as with Korbut, wonderfully memorable, moment in the 1972 Olympics? No I am not talking about Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz, a graduate of the same university I attended as an undergraduate, Indiana University, who won 7 gold medals at the Munich Games and who, like Korbut, has been lost in the haze of lets make Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian ever because we don't have a memory longer than four years. Nor am I taking about the USSR versus USA basketball game, a game "won" by the USSR, a game which, for many of the players and coaches on the 1972 US team, and for many Americans at the time and since, lives in infamy. I am talking about the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by the Palestinian group Black September, a massacre apparently aided and abetted by German neo-Nazis, a massacre aided and abetted by a lack of security at the Munich Games, a massacre aided and abetted by German police and governmental incompetence, a massacre which brought back memories of that other Summer Olympics which took place in Germany, Berlin 1936, the legendary Olympics of Hitler that was supposed to be a showcase for Nazi racial superiority. It wasn't, as we have constantly been reminded ever since, because of American track and field star Jesse Owens who won four gold medals including one in the centre piece of every Summer Olympics, the 100 metre. What we know is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will not be remembering the massacre this anniversary year. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that at the time of the hostage crisis IOC President Avery Brundage, who had been embroiled in controversy during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City where he called the protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos against American racism the product of "warped mentalites and cracked personalities", was urging German officials to get the Israelis out of the Olympic Village so the Olympic Games could go on and went on to compare, at the memorial service held for the massacred Israelis after the massacre, the killing of Israeli athletes by terrorists with the exclusion of Rhodesian athletes from the Olympics through, as Brundage put it, blackmail. But will NBC remember? NBC's Bob Costas says he will. I can't imagine it will be anywhere close to ABC's seat of the pants coverage of the massacre, a coverage I was glued to in early September, coverage I remember as being superb given the circumstances.

In the trivial pursuit and lost in the haze of history category, how many of you remember that Temple University's Eulace Peacock beat Owens on many occasions throughout 1935 including in the 100 metre and long jump as PBS's wonderful documentary on Owens reminds us? Peacock was unable, thanks to a hamstring injury in Milan and at the Penn Relays, to compete at the Olympics in 1936 and missed out on the next two because they were cancelled due to World War II. How would history be different?

Glen Levy, "Olga Korbut's Olympic Journey", 3 August 2012, Time,
Paul Doyle, "50 Stunning Olympic Moments No 47: Olga Korbut Redefines Gymnastics",6 July 2012, the Guardian,
Simon Burnton,"50 Stunning Olympic Moments No 26: The Terrorist Outrage in Munich 1972", 2 May 2012, the Guardian,
Red Smith, "The Show Must Go On", 6 September 1972, New York Times,
Sean Ingle, "50 Stunning Olympic Moments No 1: USA v. USSR Basketball Final, 1972", 16 November 2011, the Guardian,
Rob Steen, "Juan Carlos: A Salutary Lesson in the Power of Sport", 20 May 2012, the Independent,
Associated Press,"Brundage Calls Ouster Blackmail, 22 August 1972, the Toledo Blade, p. 74
William Rhoden, "A Rival for Owens, and Questions of What If", 6 May 2012, New York Times,

One Day in September, Sony Pictures Classics, 1991 [2001]
Faster, Higher, Stronger, Gymnast Olga Korbut Charms the World, 2 July 2012, BBC 2

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